In 2015, my daughter was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD). It impacts a child’s ability to process a variety of senses like taste, smell, touch and hearing. Every child with SPD is different, and their interaction with their senses is unique.
The SPD Foundation defines it as “a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses.”
For some families, receiving help and a diagnosis can be tricky. In Canada, where I live, it seems some doctors and therapists shy away from the official diagnosis of “sensory processing disorder,” while other doctors have little knowledge of sensory issues and may brush it off as typical childhood behavior.
It wasn’t until my husband and I became connected with a pediatric occupational therapist that we really became knowledgeable about the condition itself and found resources to help our child.
One of the ways we have been encouraged to help our daughter integrate her senses is by introducing various sensory activities into her daily life.
Truthfully, all of us can benefit from sensory activities to either calm or energize us, depending on what we need.
Patricia Wilbarger, an innovative occupational therapist, coined the term “sensory diet.” The concept of a sensory diet is that, similar to our unique nutritional requirements, some of us also require a specialized sensory activity plan. The goal for this daily plan is to help children and adults remain focused and organized throughout the day. Sensory diets are created for children with SPD, autism and even adults with dementia.
Our daughter doesn’t require a “strict” sensory diet, however, she has benefited from regular sensory activities to encourage sensory integration. We have noticed when we encourage her to engage in sensory play, she experiences a calmer and more fluid day.
I encourage you to try out some of these activities and pay attention to your child’s behavior and response.
1. Encourage the same physical motions every day.
Experience a smoother transition from activities when involving your child in physical sensory tasks that help them move from one activity to the next. These are called “proprioception” activities, which help children in a variety of ways, including understanding their daily schedule or soothing them at night.
Some of the ways you can do this is by having your child help to set the table before dinner, carry an armful of books to their room for story time and lie on the couch with heavy weighted blankets for quiet time.
2. Involve your child in daily tactile sensory activities.
Throughout our day, we touch a variety of objects with many different textures. Over time, we become accustomed to these sensory experiences and hardly notice them as we get older. For children with sensory processing challenges, something as simple as picking up a wet grape can be challenging and overwhelming.
Involve children in regular daily sensory activities to integrate these senses. This includes having them help you wash and dry their dishes, giving them daily sensory activities like playing with playdough, sand and sensory bins and having them help with food prep.
3. Introduce different foods into your child’s diet.
A common challenge for parents of children with sensory issues is getting their kids to try new foods. In fact, most parents around the world can relate to “picky eaters,” and most would benefit from researching sensory input and gentle ways to introduce new foods.
Instead of force feeding, consider challenging children to try out new flavors and tastes.
Many occupational therapists believe that allowing a child a small sip of a bubbly drink, like water with a bit of seltzer, will help to wake up the senses in their mouth.
Afterwards, offer your child a mix of new and familiar foods and encourage them to touch, smell and lick the food. Even if they don’t bite and chew the new food being introduced, they were able to have some kind of interaction with it.
One way we have helped our daughter introduce new foods into her diet is through food chaining. By identifying a type of food your child really enjoys and finding different versions of that food, you’re able to open a child up to new textures and food experiences.
For example, our daughter loves whole-wheat bread. We try to offer her whole-grain crackers, pitas, tortillas, chips and rice cakes. Having her branch out and try new foods that are similar to her comfort food gives her courage to continue to branch out and try new things.
4. Explore different scents with your child.
Spending time identifying and exploring different smells with your children helps to encourage the integration of their olfactory system.
Try going on a walk and smelling flowers that you pass by or having children smell different foods and spices in the kitchen. Looking for new smells will encourage a sense of exploration in their young minds.
Help them to identify smells that may seem foreign to them, like the scent of a distant campfire or the earthy scent of the air after a night of rain.
There are many fun ways to explore different scents, but try and keep it to natural smells as artificial fragrances can do more harm than good.
Regardless of whether or not your child has sensory processing disorder or difficulty integrating their senses, all children can benefit from a daily schedule that involves different sensory inputs.